Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Tot Ziens en Dank U Well, Nederlands, Hello London

Tot Ziens en Dank U Well, Nederlands, Hello London
5 September 2004

The last week and a half has flown by since leaving Netherlands and arriving here in London. I caught a train from Apeldoorn over to Amsterdam and soon enough was leaving on a British Air flight to London Gatwick. Caught the train out of Gatwick into Victoria Station, but didn't know where the hotel was at, so took a cab from there. Little did I know that the Marriott County Hall was only two tube stations away to Westminster and over the bridge. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliment were right across the River Thames from us. The view from our hotel window was the Dahli sculpture of the elephant on stilts overlooking the Thames. Just like the picture in the one tour book that I have.

I arrived a day ahead of Phil, Debi and Debra, but once they got here, we kept the schedule very busy. As expected, the first three days were cooler and rainy. Since I had wandered around the city some the day before, I had a good idea where to take the three of them for the first day. I told them that they wanted to stay up at least until 6 or 7 pm or the jet lag would kick their butts. So we headed out and ended up walking to Piccadilly Square then down to Trafalgar Square where we started to look for the restaurant that I saw the day before and had a couple of beers at. Finally, after Phil asked someone, we found it.

Our first meal in London was at the Texas Embassy Restaurant. The actual Texas Embassy building was located across the street and maintains a bit of notariety. Before Texas was admitted to the Union, they maintained an embassy which was recognized by the British Government. The food was pretty good and the margarita's really hit the spot too. Debra was a bit disappointed however since she really had her heart set on something more "British" since they can get TexMex anytime in Phoenix!

Our second day in London, we made arrangements to go see Mamma Mia! that evening, so we tried to keep the sight-seeing to a minimum so we could be back in time to get ready. We went off to see the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels and the Tower Bridge. The Tower of London was pretty interesting. Got to see the tower where Richard imprisoned and probably murdered his nephew's. Saw the rooms where Sir Walter Raliegh was imprisoned for like twenty years. Those were among the few "guests" permanently entertained at the Tower before their untimely deaths.

Of course you have to see the ravens. The rumor has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the country will fall. So they have clipped the wings of all the ravens as if to not tempt fate! Then onto the Crown Jewels. This room is almost rude with the wealth the Queen's Rock Collection. The number of gems in this room is unfathomable! For parts of the tour, you stand on this conveyor belt and ride past all these crowns and sceptors that are bathed in hallogen lighting to the point of blinding the crowds. It is a sight that everyone should see at least once in their lives.

As the Dutch Royals were always one with the people, this could never be said of the English Royals! The Dutch were always have had a "down-to-earth" approach whereas the English were always known for their class division. If the Dutch have those types of jewels in their collection, I'm sure that they wouldn't boast of it as such. But then again, one would never expect to see Queen Elizabeth slogging through the mud and water of a flooded countryside to console her people nor would one ever expect to see the Queen-mum riding a bike to the grocer in broad daylight! Such different people and such different cultures, the Dutch and the English.

But I digress! From the London Tower the rain finally let up some and we went over to the Tower Bridge. They showed a little film clip about the bridge's construction and history and then we went up into the top to catch a view of the river from both sides. The Tower Bridge is what most people typically remember of London. It was said that when the buyers of the old London Bridge were bidding to buy the London Bridge (now located at Lake Havasu, Arizona), they thought that they were getting the Tower Bridge. Stupid Americans! And they paid how many quid for it?

After our visit to the Tower and Bridge, we walked along and ran across the Hay's Galleria on the Thames. Stopped at Horniman's Pub for a bite and beer. Sat at a nice cafe table with a view of the Thames and the HMS Belfast. Walking further up river, we walked past the London Dungeon, but the lines were too long to visit that day. I ended up getting tickets later in the trip via internet and we skated right in.

Mamma Mia! What a show! We got great seats- second row mezzanine just off to the left of stage by the aisle. I have always liked the music of ABBA, and the way they put the story with the music was great. I guess that I have never really seen a musical, so I think that I chose a good one as an introduction. The two guys from ABBA worked with the playwright to change some of the lyrics for the musical, so the story really flows and is quite comedic along the way.

Of course, we did our obligatory trip to Harrod's. What is a trip to London without a visit to Harrod's? There was a memorial in the window as it was the anniversary of the death of Princess Di and Dodi. Flowers, stuffed animals and messages were laid on the sidewalk in front of the window display. These were all moved indoors later in the week to the lower level by the escalators near the Egyptian Room.

On Saturday, Phil decided to spoil himself at the spa in the hotel. And cousin Debra decided to give Deb and I some time to catch-up. So Deb and I ventured out on our own and went up to the Camden Markets. Shopping was one thing that we plenty of on this trip...well, shopping and eating! Wandered through a lot of interesting stores and Debi even found one Celtic store that has some beautiful silver Celtic crosses that she just couldn't pass up.

In Camden we found this interesting kite and juggling supply shop. When we went in, the guy behind the counter was playing with these orbs that were somewhat clear which we had seen before from the "singing mime" on the riverfront by the hotel the other day. I had made a comment to Deb that it looked like she was juggling implants. So when the guy asked if he could help us, Deb blurts out that we saw a singing mime juggling those very same implants the other day! Poor guy about dropped the balls he was juggling and had to have her pass that by him again. Then he says, "Oh yah, that's so-and-so. She always juggles in that area!" They did get quite a laugh at our little fau paux about the implant juggling!

While Debra was away, we made a train trip over to Windsor to see the castle. I really wasn't up for the trip,but once we got there, I was really impressed. The town of Windsor was actually quaint. The Queen was away in Scottland, but we really didn't expect to see her anyway. The castle is considered her home whereas Buckingham Palace is more considered her office. For anyone going to London, I would say that a trip to Windsor should be on the list of items to see. The countryside is beautiful and the sections of the castle are unbelievable. The cathedral is also breathtaking. The sidewalks in the town were about rolled up at 5 pm, but we went back and had dinner at this little Italian cafe on the cobblestone streets.

Finally in the few days toward the end of the trip, we worked in a few down-days to allow us to catch up on sleep. I think that towards the end, we were all just a bit burned out on the sight-seeing circuit. One shopping mecca that is worth noting is the trip to Lillywhites at Piccadilly Circus just as you come up from the tube. We had been talking with the hotel staff about how expensive shirts and clothes were and they let us in on their secret. They said that Lillywhites is where all the locals go. It is mostly sports wear and the like, but the prices on most all of their clothes are cheaper than sending laundry off to the hotel laundry service! All in all, London is extremely expensive. Just ask Amex and Visa. There we go again, Visa being everywhere that I want to be!

Now you don't think that a trip like this was without it's disasters! It's Thursday morning and two days to go. I've got about 5 pounds in my wallet. So I go over to the ATM machines at Waterloo Station where I've withdrawn cash before. Put the card in the ATM and nothing. Just a message on the screen saying that your transaction has been canceled, piss off, have a good day! But, but, but, my card. I have all this money in the bank and no way to get at it now! What am I going to do? Called the Natwest bank and they don't run the machines. Called the maintenance company that owns the machines and they can't do anything. Their answer is that they can't get the card back and it was probably shredded when the damned machine sucked up the card. Couldn't call my bank yet since it is only midnight in Chicago. Now what?

American Express to the rescue!!! Called AMEX and they were there for me. Just remember: Don't Leave Home Without It! Well, Mr. Gallas, How much do you need? What Western Union Station is near you and we will get the money transfer there within 30 minutes. A few verification questions and we will get this cash to you. I have to say that American Express saved my sanity and my vacation!! First we went over to the Amex by Harrod's, but their machine was down. So they gave us a map of locations and we took the tube over to Piccadilly Circus. Bingo! By this time, I needed lunch and a drink...not in that order! So we were right over by Friday's and I think I could have spent the whole afternoon there and I'd of been happy after all that!

So now I sit here on Sunday afternoon at Heathrow Airport awaiting my flight to Amsterdam. When Phil and Deb and Debra left yesterday, I really was ready to go back home. Can't believe that I'm already on the return journey back to Iraq. Across from my gait is a BA flight to Chicago. Hmmm...how much more would it cost to jump ship at this point? This is why I didn't take leave back in the States. I would not have wanted to return to Iraq! But, let's be realistic here. Still have bills to pay, mortgage to make and dogs to feed. Five more months to go. They're getting ready to board now.
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